United States captain Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas made a strong start as the Presidents Cup got underway on a cold and overcast morning in Melbourne.

Woods purred at Royal Melbourne Golf Club, where the 15-time major champion birdied his opening two holes to put the USA 2up against the International team on Thursday.

There was plenty of colour and noise as fans descended on the opening tee, with a group of USA supporters - including a man dressed up as a tiger - belting out a rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight".

Woods and team-mate Thomas did not miss a beat in the opening four-ball contest against Marc Leishman and Joaquin Niemann.

Seeking an eighth consecutive Presidents Cup triumph, Woods set the tone with back-to-back birdies in a flawless start to the day.

Patrick Reed - embroiled in penalty controversy entering the tournament - and Dustin Johnson are among the USA players in action on day one, while Adam Scott and Louis Oosthuizen are among the Internationals flying the flag for Ernie Els' team.

Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas will open the Presidents Cup for the United States against International team's Marc Leishman and Joaquin Niemann.

Woods, the USA's playing captain, picked himself alongside Thomas for the first of Thursday's five four-ball matches at Royal Melbourne Golf Club.

The USA are favourites to win the event for an eighth straight time and Woods and Thomas could give them a perfect start.

While Woods (24-15-1) has a strong Presidents Cup record, the 15-time major champion is 7-9-0 in the four-ball format.

Woods opted to pick Dustin Johnson, who is returning from knee surgery, alongside Gary Woodland against Abraham Ancer and Louis Oosthuizen.

American duo Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay will face Adam Hadwin and Im Sung-jae, Tony Finau and Bryson DeChambeau meet Adam Scott and Byeong Hun An while International pair Hideki Matsuyama and C.T. Pan will take on Webb Simpson and Patrick Reed.

 

Thursday's four-ball matches (International v the USA)
Marc Leishman/Joaquin Niemann v Justin Thomas/Tiger Woods
Adam Hadwin/Im Sung-jae v Xander Schauffele/Patrick Cantlay
Adam Scott/Byeong Hun An v Bryson DeChambeau/Tony Finau
Hideki Matsuyama/C.T. Pan v Webb Simpson/Patrick Reed
Abraham Ancer/Louis Oosthuizen v Dustin Johnson/Gary Woodland

Cameron Smith said his friendship with Patrick Reed was over and admitted there was "a little bit of tension" between the pair.

Smith criticised Reed after the American was assessed a two-stroke penalty for improving his lie during last week's Hero World Challenge.

The Australian accused Reed of cheating, while the 2018 Masters champion has insisted the incident was unintentional.

Speaking ahead of the Presidents Cup, Smith said his friendship with Reed was over.

"I'm sure he didn't like it [the comments]. I think there is a little bit of tension there," he told a news conference on Wednesday.

"I've looked at Patrick a couple times but he hasn't looked back. I'm looking forward to the weekend."

Smith added: "I definitely won't go out of my way [to talk to him]. I think our friendship, I guess, is not quite there anymore.

"Yeah, you know, whatever Ernie [Els, International captain] thinks is best I'm willing to do. I'm here to do a job for Ernie and that's all I'm focusing on."

Smith said he had a friendly relationship with Reed, with the pair sharing a physio.

However, the 26-year-old said he was simply doing what he felt was right.

"I think it's a case of what's right and what's wrong," Smith said.

"I think there's something to be said about that."

Dustin Johnson insisted he felt "just fine" ahead of the Presidents Cup as he prepares to return from knee surgery.

The world number five is set to play for the first time since August after undergoing surgery following the Tour Championship.

Johnson withdrew from the Hero World Challenge last week, but the American said he was ready to go at Royal Melbourne Golf Club.

"I was always planning on playing. I enjoy these events," he told a news conference on Wednesday.

"It's a privilege to be part of these teams and it was something that, unless I didn't feel like could I come here and help the team, then I wouldn't have came.

"But I feel like I definitely can help the team and the game is in good enough form to where I feel just fine."

The United States will go into the Presidents Cup as hot favourites to win the event for the eighth straight time.

Johnson believes the course in Melbourne does not favour either the USA or the International team.

"I think it's the same … the fairways, it's not a very difficult driving course," he said.

"There's a few obviously difficult drives where you have to hit some really good shots, but it's all about the approaches, leaving the ball in the right spot.

"I think the forecast is the wind is going to blow a little bit, and obviously the greens are very firm and fast.

"So controlling the golf ball coming into the greens, leaving it in the right spot is going to be the key this week."

Rory McIlroy will not compete in the Saudi International, with the world number two confirming there is a moral factor to his decision.

Dustin Johnson - who won the inaugural Saudi International this year - Phil Mickelson and world number one Brooks Koepka have been confirmed for the European Tour event, which runs from January 30 to February 2 in King Abdullah Economic City.

However, four-time major winner McIlroy will not be taking part, with the Northern Irishman stating playing in Saudi Arabia is not something that interests him.

McIlroy, who has been joined by current Masters champion Tiger Woods in deciding not to feature in Saudi Arabia, also added he would rather focus on playing in front of large crowds on the PGA Tour early in 2020.

"It's just not something that would excite me," he told Golf Channel's Morning Drive show. "One-hundred per cent, there's a morality to it as well.

"You could say that about so many countries, not just Saudi Arabia, but a lot of countries that we play in that there's a reason not to go, but for me, I just don't want to go.

"I think the atmosphere looks better at the events on the west coast [of America] and I'd much rather play in front of big golf fans and play in a tournament that really excites me."

Saudi Arabia's regime have been attempting to bring more big sporting events to the country in recent years, and on Saturday it hosted Anthony Joshua's heavyweight title rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr in Diriyah, on the outskirts of Riyadh.

Patrick Reed said his motivation for the Presidents Cup in Melbourne is "turning personal" amid backlash and claims of cheating after his penalty controversy.

American golfer Reed takes to the course at Royal Melbourne Golf Club as the villain following his two-stroke penalty during last week's Hero World Challenge.

Already a maligned figure on the PGA Tour, Reed was penalised for improving his lie in a bunker, hitting the sand twice during his practice swings, sparking controversy.

The International team – led by Ernie Els – have been outspoken, with Cameron Smith saying, "I don't have any sympathy for anyone that cheats" during the Australian Open last week.

Having been backed by United States captain Tiger Woods earlier on Tuesday, 2018 Masters champion Reed fronted the media full of confidence as he strongly dismissed cheating allegations.

"It goes from wanting to beat those guys to it now turning personal, so it's going to be a fun week," Reed told reporters, with the Presidents Cup set to start on Thursday.

Asked how he felt about the word "cheat" being bandied about, Reed replied: "It's not the right word to use. At the end of the day, if you do something unintentionally that breaks the rules, it's not considered cheating and at the end of the day that's what it is.

"If you're intentionally trying to do something, that would be considered cheating, but I wasn't intentionally trying to improve a lie or anything like that, because if it was, it would have been a really good lie and I would have hit it really close."

On the backlash and comments made by members of the International team, Reed added: "They're not supposed to talk good about us and we're not supposed to talk good about them leading into this event, that's normal. At the end of the day, all I can do is control me and what comes out of my mouth. Can't whole what comes out of theirs."

"Of course they are going to speak out, because they want to get their crowds going and get on their side," Reed continued. That's the name of the game. At the end of the day, all I can do is control what I can do and how I play, and so it doesn't matter who I'm playing on the other team. My job this week as Captain [Woods] has told all of our guys, "Go out and win your point."

"Whenever your name is called, you have to go out and win your match and that's what we're going to try and do, go out and win the point. Not to do anything wrong, but strictly win the point for myself and our team and my country."

Tiger Woods is confident his United States team have the strength in depth to claim victory in the Presidents Cup, despite a lengthy journey to Australia "in a luxurious tin can".

The USA will seek to win an eighth consecutive edition of the competition against their International opponents in Melbourne, with captain Woods headlining a star-studded visiting line-up.

Even with four-time major winner Brooks Koepka forced out through injury, the USA are heavy favourites to prevail and Woods has faith in his team to deliver the goods this week.

"I think our strength is that we are a very deep team," he said at the captains' media conference on Tuesday. 

"The guys have played well this entire year, and you know, we had 11 out of 12 guys play last week, so it was nice for them to shake off some rust, get a feel for things.

"Today is an important day for us to just walk and to stretch our legs a bit. Getting in yesterday after a 26-hour ride in a luxurious tin can, it's nice to actually get out there and feel some fresh air."

One man sure to attract attention from the crowd is Patrick Reed, who has been embroiled in controversy since being hit with a two-stroke penalty at the Hero World Challenge at the weekend.

The American was penalised for improving his lie in a bunker, hitting the sand twice during his practice swings in a move he insists was unintentional.

It is expected that Reed, already a divisive figure, will come in for some rough treatment, but Woods had some kind words for the local fans.

"Well, I'm sure somebody's going to say something out there," he admitted.

"But I think that in general, all the times I have been to Australia and have played here, the fans have been fantastic.

"They are the most knowledgeable, the most excitable fans. They love their sport. They are going to come out and it's going to be bipartisan, as it should be.

"They are going to root for the Internationals more so than they are us. There's nothing wrong with that."

Opposing captain Ernie Els struck a defiant tone despite history weighing heavily against the International side, who have not won the tournament since 1998. 

"I've got a great young team [and] I've got some experienced players," said the South African.

"Guys are naturally just standing up; guys who are quite comfortable to speak – and I like that. I like the spirit we have this week."

Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer of all time despite having won fewer majors than Jack Nicklaus.

That is the firm view of Rory McIlroy, who declared a clear winner in the longest-running debate in the sport.

Nicklaus won 18 majors between 1962 and 1986, with Woods' 2019 Masters success moving him to 15 after an 11-year wait.

However, McIlroy cited Woods' 82 PGA Tour wins – nine more than his compatriot – as proof of the 43-year-old's greater consistency.

"In the history of our game no one has played better golf than Tiger Woods," McIlroy told the Golf Channel's Morning Drive show.

"When you look – 2000, 2001, that whole stretch – no one has played the calibre of golf that he played then.

"That's why I think he is the best player to ever live, because no one reached the levels that he did. In my estimation, he is the best to ever do it.

"I think it's the relentlessness. Back in those years I was talking about – nine wins, and then the next year it would be 10 wins, then the next year it would be eight wins. It was just year after year of relentless excellence.

"I think his 82 PGA Tour events that he's won is nearly more impressive than the 15 majors. The motivation to get up every morning and say, 'Yep, I'm going to keep on this journey, keep dominating people' – and he's still doing it.”

Woods needs one more PGA Tour victory to claim the outright record tally, with Sam Snead having won the same number. 

Henrik Stenson recorded his first tournament win in over two years as a stunning late eagle helped him clinch the Hero World Challenge on Saturday.

Top spot on a star-studded leaderboard changed hands on several occasions during a gripping final round, with Stenson making his move on the par-five 15th at the Albany Golf Club in the Bahamas.

The Swede came close to holing out his long-range approach shot to the green for an albatross, instead having to settle for a tap-in putt that moved him to 18 under par.

Three straight pars saw the 2016 Open champion sign for a score of 66, leaving him to watch on as those big names still out on the course attempted to catch him.

A fast-finishing Jon Rahm tried his best, an eagle of his own at the 15th sandwiched between birdies.

However, the Spaniard failed to pick up the shot he required over his closing two holes to draw level with Stenson, leaving him a shot adrift in second place.

Patrick Reed, who was handed a two-shot penalty during his third round after appearing to shift sand from behind his ball at the 11th hole, was along in third on 16 under, ahead of Tiger Woods.

A birdie at the seventh had Woods in front at 14 under but, after picking up another at the 11th, his hopes of victory were dealt a telling blow when he bogeyed the par-four 11th.

Justin Rose and Justin Thomas ended up tied together on 13 under, one clear of overnight leader Gary Woodland, whose topsy-turvy 73 included a double-bogey seven at the third.

Gary Woodland ended a rollercoaster third round top of the Hero World Challenge leaderboard, but Tiger Woods moved further into position.

Patrick Reed had been three clear of the chasing pack through two rounds, yet his miserable Friday blew the tournament wide open in the Bahamas.

While a number of stars consequently had the opportunity to claim the lead, it was Woodland who moved into pole position thanks to drama that continued to the 18th hole.

Henrik Stenson had been two clear of a group of four in a tie for second when he birdied the 17th, only to see the tables turn at the last.

The Swede bogeyed for the first time all day, a four-under 68 dropping him to 12 under, as Woodland made gains on each of the final two holes.

The U.S. Open champion moved to 13 under, a stroke ahead of Stenson, who appeared to be level with Reed as play finished.

However, Reed, who made par at every hole on the front nine, before originally scrambling to a 72 with a birdie at the last, was handed a two-stroke penalty that amended his score to 74.

Reed twice appeared to shift sand from behind his ball at the 11th hole, and PGA Tour officials subsequently confirmed he had violated Rule 8.1a (4), which relates to "removing or pressing down sand or loose soil".

That leaves the 2018 Masters champion three back from Woodland.

Woods is well positioned, though, having fired again after a 66 on Thursday boosted him to within six of then-leader Reed.

The 15-time major champion carded a five-under 67 - with four birdies on the back nine - in an effort that was matched by Justin Thomas, also on 11 under in a three-way tie for third alongside Jon Rahm.

Justin Rose surged into contention with four birdies over the first six holes, but he tailed away to card a 71, leaving him seven behind Woodland.

Jordan Spieth belatedly moved under par for the week - two under - with a 69, while Bryson DeChambeau also shot his best round of the week, a 70, but remained over par.

Patrick Reed carded a second consecutive 66 to move three shots clear at the Hero World Challenge as Tiger Woods surged into contention.

Reed had shared the overnight lead with U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, whose run of three birdies to finish kept him in the hunt.

But 15-time major winner Woods was the big mover as he shrugged off Wednesday's erratic showing to close the gap to six strokes at the halfway point.

Defending champion Jon Rahm and 2016 Open winner Henrik Stenson are two shots better off than Woods, having signed for 66 and 67 respectively. 

Woods was blemish-free in round two, in stark contrast to the four bogeys and a double which spoiled Wednesday's 18 holes.

He felt the conditions made low scoring much easier and was pleased to take advantage.

"I think it was just less windy,'' he said in quotes reported by ESPN. "It was a little bit easier. Scoring conditions were a little bit better.

"I didn't hit the ball as well as I would like starting out... but I got it going on the back nine, which is nice.''

Tiger Woods fell away in the closing stages to end round one of the Hero World Challenge six shots adrift of joint leaders Gary Woodland and Patrick Reed.

U.S. Open champion Woodland and Reed led on six under par after shooting rounds of 66, with Chez Reavie two strokes off the pace in third position.

Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson were all in contention on three under, with defending champion Jon Rahm one shot further back.

Woods, meanwhile, ended the day on even par in a tie for 11th place as he played for the first time since his win in Japan at the Zozo Championship in October.

Hosting the event at Albany, in the Bahamas, Woods selected the pairings and had many of his USA players for next week's Presidents Cup playing alongside each other.

It looked like Woods would end Wednesday's play in touching distance of the leaders after recovering from a two-over-par front nine to gain five shots in as many holes in a supreme stint, capped by chipping in for an eagle on the 15th.

But he dropped a shot on 17 and then three-putted on the last for a double bogey as he fell away.

Earlier, he had enjoyed an amusing moment with playing partner Thomas by mocking the length of the world number five's drive.

Woodland's impressive round in windy conditions included eight birdies to ensure he led the 18-man field along with Reed, who had four consecutive birdies on 13, 14, 15 and 16.

Reavie, a late replacement for Dustin Johnson, overcame a double bogey on the ninth to put himself firmly in the mix at an event which Woods has won five times, but not since 2011.

It was a day to forget for Tony Finau, with last year's runner-up recording a seven-over score of 79 that contained a triple bogey on the eighth to sit bottom of the leaderboard.

Tiger Woods believes golf can help to "heal" the issues that have led to criticism of Phil Mickelson's decision to play the Saudi International in 2020.

The introduction of the tournament to the European Tour calendar in 2019 was controversial due to Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

Dustin Johnson won the inaugural event, held from January 31 to February 3 this year, and will again play for the $3.5million purse next year.

World number one Brooks Koepka will also feature in the field and Mickelson's decision to skip the Waste Management Phoenix Open to join them has proved unpopular in some quarters.

Responding to critics on Twitter, Mickelson wrote: "After turning down opportunities to go to the Middle East for many years, I'm excited to go play and see a place in the world I've never been. I understand those who are upset or disappointed. You'll be ok. I'm excited to experience this for the first time."

Masters champion Woods will not be making the trip and, speaking ahead of the Hero World Challenge, he said: "I just didn't want to go over there - it is a long way to go.

"I understand the politics behind it. But also the game of golf can help heal a lot of that, too. It can help grow it [the game]. And also a lot of top players are going to be playing there that particular week.

“It's traditionally not a golf hotbed, the Middle East. But it has grown quite a bit. I remember going to Dubai for my very first time and seeing maybe two or three buildings in the skyline. Now there is a New York City skyline.

"Again, golf has grown. There were only a few courses when I went to Dubai and now they're everywhere. Same with Abu Dhabi, and maybe eventually in Saudi Arabia."

Tiger Woods is aware he must "do everything right" if he is to catch Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles.

Masters champion Woods, who turns 44 this month, moved his career tally to 15 this year with a stunning success at Augusta.

The American believes Nicklaus' tally remains a realistic target but acknowledges he cannot afford to let any opportunities slip by as he reaches the latter stages of his career.

Asked if Nicklaus' mark was still attainable, Woods told reporters: "I think it is. 

"I have to do everything right. I have to have all the pieces come together. It has taken Jack a lifetime to get there, until he was 46.

"I'm just proud of what I've done, to come back from where I came back from to win another major championship but also to do it in a different way.

"I've finally come from behind to win a major championship. I finally know that I can do that now. I had never done it; 14-1 is not a bad record but I had never done it this way."

Woods will make his first appearance since winning the Zozo Championship in October at the Hero World Challenge in The Bahamas this week.

He revealed he finally sat down to watch his memorable Masters success with caddie Joe LaCava once his season ended in the aftermath of his success in Japan.

Woods believes he will be more contemplative when he defends his title once the first major of 2020 comes around in April.

"I think we all get a bit more reflective as we age," Woods said. 

"My window is a lot smaller than it used to be so understanding that and recognising it is not a bad thing.

"I sat down and watched it with Joe. He came down [to Florida] to do a TV spot then he and I just sat there, had a few beers and watched it.

"We spoke about the conversations we had over each shot. Some of our friends and family who were there were like, 'Oh, my God, you guys really talked about that?' 

"But that's what we were talking about, that's what was going on. We were running through all the scenarios, Joe looking at the boards, I am looking at the boards. 

"We were trying to figure out what was going on; who birdied what, who was making a move. We were having those discussions in the fairway about what we needed to do while still staying focussed about executing.

"It was a lot of fun seeing it back and sharing it with Joe because he has been through all the tough times with me as well as the good times."

Dustin Johnson has withdrawn from the Hero World Challenge to focus on the upcoming Presidents Cup.

The American world number four underwent knee surgery in September and was set to play in the Bahamas beginning on Wednesday.

However, Johnson has withdrawn from the tournament and said Tiger Woods – the United States' Presidents Cup captain and Hero World Challenge host – was supportive of his decision.

"After a lot of careful thought and consultation, I have decided that it is in my best interest if I withdraw from next week's Hero World Challenge," he wrote on Twitter on Saturday.

"While my recovery from knee surgery is complete, I feel another week of physical therapy and practice will best prepare me for the Presidents Cup.

"I have informed captain Woods of my decision, which he fully supports and understands, and cannot wait to tee it up with him and my team-mates next week in Australia."

The Presidents Cup begins in Melbourne on December 12 as USA look to win the event for the eighth straight time.

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